Summer is here. It is time for me to take a break from posting to this blog. So I will write this one last blog entry and then will take a break until August.
The past few weeks have been interesting. The PRC has aggressively moved into the “Southeast Asian Mediterranean,” and a debate has taken place over a book about Vietnamese origins. These two events should not be related, but in actuality they are, and that is a problem.
Recently an author by the name of Tạ Đức has written a book about Vietnamese origins that places the origins of the Vietnamese in China, and his book has been criticized by scholars as diverse as Trần Trọng Dương and Hà Văn Thùy, and has received a more politically motivated critique from Bùi Xuân Đính.
I agree with Tạ Đức’s criticisms of Hà Văn Thùy’s ideas, but I also agree with Trần Trọng Dương’s criticisms of Tạ Đức’s scholarship.
Ultimately, Tạ Đức and Hà Văn Thùy are two authors who 1) do not have the ability to read primary sources (in classical Chinese = Hán) and 2) also do not have the ability to understand sources in foreign languages – French, English, etc. And by “understand,” I mean that they cannot read sources in foreign languages and evaluate the degree to which those sources are reliable (Tạ Đức has pointed this out for Hà Văn Thùy and I think I have pointed this out for Tạ Đức).
There are therefore problems with the scholarship of both Tạ Đức and Hà Văn Thùy, but the real problem is that there is no serious alternative to their scholarship.
The “official” view of the Vietnamese past has not changed since the early 1970s. The interpretation of Vietnamese history that was produced at that time was produced during wartime and had the purpose of mobilizing people to unite together to defend and build the nation.
That was a very important task, and the historical interpretations from that time served that purpose exceptionally well.
The problem now is that Vietnam is no longer at war, and the nation has already been established. What is more, thousands of its citizens have now studied abroad and have been exposed to more complex ways of viewing the world and the past. As a result, the “same old story” doesn’t satisfy the younger generation.
More importantly, the orthodox version of the past is not sophisticated enough to deal with the complexities of the present.
The past is complex and the present is complex. When the past is presented in simplistic ways (as Tạ Đức and Hà Văn Thùy have done and as the official history does) then it makes it very difficult for people to be able to conceptualize effective ways to deal with the present.
Unfortunately for Vietnam, no one is attempting to conceptualize the past in complex ways. Unofficial historians like Tạ Đức and Hà Văn Thùy make their ideas known, but professional historians remain silent (as Nguyễn Hòa has noted), or simply repeat the same ideas that have existed since the early 1970s.
The problem is that it’s 2014 already, and the world is a lot more complex now than it was back then.
So having said that, I’m now going to celebrate 2014 by going to Borneo and getting a tattoo in order to “thoát Tàu” (escape China) and experience “real” Southeast Asian culture.
Thank you everyone for reading and commenting (either here or on fb). I hope you have learned as much from me as I have learned from you. And I look forward to continuing the conversation in August.